The site of ancient Capernaum

Why did Jesus move to Capernaum?

(This is the first of three articles on Capernaum, Jesus’ “own city” (Matthew 9:1). The first article will delve into Jesus’ possible connections to the city as well as the reasons why he left his residence in Nazareth to move there. The next two articles will examine what exciting things modern archeology has revealed about this most significant city in Jesus’ life and ministry.)

On a gentle hillside on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee stood the ancient city of Capernaum. The city was of modest size (by some estimates it’s first century population was between 1500 to 3000) and it did not survive down to modern times. Yet for a brief moment in the first century, this humble fishing community was the centre of the world.

Capernaum literally means, “Village of Nahum”, but there is no evidence that it had anything to do with the Biblical prophet Nahum who probably had lived far to the south in Judea. Capernaum owed its existence to two fortunate factors. First, the Sea of Galilee has for many centuries enjoyed the reputation of being a remarkably rich fishing ground. Towns like Capernaum are in a position to take advantage of that. Secondly, Capernaum is located on an important ancient road called in modern times the “Via Maris” (the Way of the Sea) but called in the Bible, “the Way of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17). This road connected Egypt and the coastal region of Israel (where the Philistines once dwelt) with Damascus in Syria. This meant that there was a constant stream of travellers and traders passing through Capernaum.

The "Via Maris" (Red) ran from Egypt to Damascus, passing through Capernaum

The “Via Maris” (Red) ran from Egypt to Damascus, passing through Capernaum along the way.

The Sea of Galilee is roughly shaped like an inverted tear drop. It is the second lowest body of water on Earth, only the Dead Sea is lower. The Sea of Galilee has an approximate length of 21 km (13 mi), with a maximum width of about 12 km (7.5 mi). At its deepest point it is about 48 m (157 ft) deep.

It is important to note that the designation “Sea” of Galilee is something of a misnomer. By definition, a “sea” is a saltwater body. The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake. It is fed by numerous freshwater springs from beneath her surface but primarily from the Jordan River which flows into it from the north and out of it from the south. The Jordan brings rainwater and snow melt water down from Mount Hermon and the region that today is called the Golan Heights.

In the Bible, the Sea of Galilee goes by a number of names. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the name, “Sea of Chinnereth” (Sea of Kinneret) is used (Numbers 34:11; Deuteronomy 3:17; Joshua 11:2). The Gospel writer Luke uses the term, “the lake of Gennesaret” (Luke 5:1). The Roman’s called it the Sea or Lake of Tiberius (John 6:1). Today, most Israeli’s refer to the body of water as Lake Kinneret.

Archeology suggests Capernaum, like other fishing communities in the north part of the Sea of Galilee was founded during the Hasmonean period of independence, before the Roman Empire occupied the land. So when Jesus resided there, Capernaum may only have been in existence for one to two centuries.

Chronologically, the first mention of Capernaum in the Bible account occurs in the Gospel of John. It was very early in Jesus ministry, right after he had attended a wedding celebration in Cana where he famously performed his first miracle (the turning of water into wine). Cana is almost certainly associated with an archeological site called Khirbet Qana. This site was north of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. In ancient times a road descended down to Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was a distance of about 40 km (25 mi). After attending the wedding, the Gospel writer recounts:

After this he and his mother and his brothers and his disciples went down to Capernaum, but they did not stay there many days.” (John 2:12)

After a brief stay in Capernaum, Jesus along with his mother, brothers and disciples would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, which was one of the annual festivals that observant Jews were religiously required to attend. It is noteworthy that Jesus and his mother choose to stay in Capernaum for some days before leaving. Of course it offered them the opportunity to rest up before embarking on a long journey on foot that may have taken a week or more. Although the Bible doesn’t specify, it also seems possible that Jesus and family may have been visiting relatives in Capernaum or the area.

Roughly 10 kilometres (6 miles) north-east of Capernaum was the community of Bethsaida, another fishing town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Bethsaida was the birthplace of least three of Jesus’ apostles. Namely they were Philip (called “the Evangilizer”) as well as Peter (sometimes called “Simon” or “Simon Peter”) and his brother Andrew. Peter and Andrew were fishermen who seem to have been in partnership with the sons of a man named Zebedee. Zebedee’s sons were James and John (Luke 5:10). This business partnership may have been in the form of a cooperative. Fishermen could form cooperatives in order to bid for fishing contracts or leases. This may have been the way that the sons of Zebedee, Peter, Andrew, and their partners obtained the right to carry on their fishing business in Galilee. Since large freshwater lakes with abundant fish resources are so rare in the middle-east, fishing on the Sea of Galilee seems to have been a heavily regulated, state controlled industry. A lease to fish in Galilee may have been prohibitively expensive for just one fisherman, thus the need for a cooperative involving many fishermen. They may have been allowed to pay their taxes “in kind” by means of their fishing catch. Historical evidence shows that some professional fishermen paid 25 to 40 percent of their catch in exchange for the right to fish. It is possible that the tax collector named Levi (also called Matthew) whose tax office was in the city of Capernaum, may have been responsible for assigning contracts with local fishermen for the lease of fishing rights.

In spite of the heavy taxation imposed upon fishermen, it is evident that Zebedee had a flourishing fishing business, for the scriptures indicate that he had hired men in addition to his business partners. Four of those partners, Peter and Andrew as well as James and John the sons of Zebedee would abandon their fishing business when Jesus invited them to join him and become his disciples (Mark 1: 16- 20).

Although Peter and Andrew were originally from Bethsaida by the time of Jesus’s ministry they were living in Capernaum along with Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1: 29, 30). The scriptures don’t mention where Zebedee and his sons James and John resided, but it stands to reason that if they were in partnership with Peter and Andrew than they probably lived in Capernaum as well.

We can infer that Jesus and Mary may have been staying with relatives in Capernaum because there is strong scriptural evidence to suggest that Mary and the wife of Zebedee (mother of James and John) were sisters.  Multiple Gospel writers describe a group of women watching the same event, the death of Jesus. A comparison of two of those accounts, Matthew 27:56 along with Mark 15:40 seems to indicate that a woman named Salome was the mother of the sons of Zebedee​. Further examination of a third parallel account adds the following, “By the torture stake of Jesus, however, there were standing his mother and his mother’s sister; Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19: 25) It is understood by scholars that Clopas is another name for Alphaeus, the father of another Apostle named James (often called James “the less”). All three accounts seem to be describing the same group of women. This would indicate that the unnamed woman called Jesus “mother’s sister” at John 19:25 is Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee. If this is accurate than Jesus and the brothers James and John were first cousins. It would therefore be not surprising that Jesus and Mary would visit their family in Capernaum when they could. If this theory is true it would also suggest that Jesus, although a carpenter by trade, may not have been wholly unfamiliar with the fishing business from time spent with his cousins.

A practical, financial motive for Peter and Andrew’s relocation from Bethsaida to Capernaum has been suggested. Although the two neighbouring communities were relatively close, they were in two different political territories. The reason why this was the case will require a very brief lesson in the family history of Herod the Great.

Herod (called “the Great”) came into power about 39 B.C after murdering all his rivals and securing the political support of Rome. Herod believed that it was in his best interests to always support Rome over the aspirations of the people he had been given to rule. After his unlamented death in 1 B.C (Matthew 2:19), his will stipulated that his kingdom be split into a number of separate territories ruled by heirs that he designated. Herod the Great was subject to Rome and that meant that his choices for rulers had to be confirmed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1), the Roman emperor. That done, the largest portion of the territory (Judea, Samaria and Idumea) once ruled by Herod the Great went to his son Herod Archelaus (Matthew 2: 22). The regions of  Galilee and Perea would be ruled by his son Herod Antipas (Mark 6: 17-29) the future murderer of John the Baptizer. The region to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee that today is often referred to as the Golan Heights was bequeathed to another son of Herod the Great named Herod Phillip II who in the Bible is called, Phillip the “Tetrarch”” or “District Ruler” (Luke 3:1). These rulers were called “Tetrarchs”, which literally means “ruler of a quarter” and it denoted a rulership of lesser authority than an absolute king, although locally they seem to have been referred to as kings (Mark 6:14).

Judea after Herod

After the death of King Herod the Great, his kingdoms were divided into “Tetrarchies” and given to his children. All of these Tetrarchies and the autonomous cities of the Decapolis remained subject to the mighty Roman Empire.

Peter and Andrew were you’ll recall, originally from Bethsaida which was just inside the border of the Tetrarchy of Philip. Capernaum was in the region of Galilee, part of the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. Peter and Andrew were fisherman and would have wanted to sell their catch outside their immediate area. Unfortunately, fish go bad rather quickly in the heat of the Galilee region. In order to preserve their catch the fish would need to be salted or air dried. The prosperous fishing community of Magdala (possible birthplace of Mary Magdalene) was about 10 kilometres (6 miles) south-west of Capernaum. The ancient collection of Rabbinical writing called the Talmud called Magdala, “Magdala of the fish”.

Boat resized

The “Jesus Boat”, discovered near the ancient site of Magdala in 1986.

Testifying to the important role of fishing in Magdala was the relatively recent discovery of a first century fishing boat of a type that Jesus would have been familiar with. This ancient boat, the so-called “Jesus Boat” was revealed in 1986 when a drought receded the waterline near the ancient community of Magdala (discussed in detail in the article, (“The “Jesus Boat”). Magdala had a large fish processing centre that may have been the principle or indeed only such facility on the lake. To bring their fish there for processing or even to sell their fish to inhabitants of the Galilee region and to travellers on the ancient highway to Damascus, an inhabitant of Bethsaida would have had to pay a tax to Herod Antipas. By becoming inhabitants of Capernaum, Peter and Andrew may no longer have had to pay this tax.

Jesus moved to Capernaum from his hometown of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry. A couple of events seem to have prompted this move. First, after speaking at the synagogue in Nazareth, a mob enraged by his words attempted to throw him off the brow of the large hill. Jesus easily escaped the mob (Luke 4: 16-30). The second event was the report that John the Baptizer had been arrested by Herod Antipas (Matthew 4:12).

Other reasons may have been more practical. Capernaum was a larger and more important centre than Nazareth. Living on the Sea of Galilee meant that Jesus was just a short boat ride away from a number of Jewish communities that lined the lake. Further, as mentioned Capernaum occupied a strategic location on an important ancient highway (the “Via Maris”). Traffic from all over the ancient world would have to pass through Capernaum every day. This helped facilitate the spread of Jesus’ message and the fame of his ministry. Galilee would serve as a springboard to the world in a way that the remote, unconnected community of Nazareth never could. Of course the most important reason for the move was to fulfil Bible prophecy:

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. Further, after leaving Nazareth, he came and took up residence in Capernaum beside the sea in the districts of Zebulun and Naphtali, so as to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet…” (Matthew 4: 12-14)

Capernaum continued to exist as a community for centuries after the death of Jesus. More than once it was devastated by major earthquakes and rebuilt again. The town was home to Jews, Christians and eventually to Muslims. Capernaum seems to have been abandoned by the time of the first Crusader conquest in the late 11th century. It lay in ruins for centuries occupied only by nomadic Bedouins. The site of Capernaum was identified in 1838 by an American explorer named Edward Robinson. After the area was purchased from the Bedouin people by Roman Catholic friars in 1894, serious archeological work on the site began in the early 20th century. Since that time, a great deal of work has been done and a great deal has been discovered. Slowly, Capernaum has given up some of her secrets. We will explore the most exciting discoveries in our next article, “What Archeology has revealed about Capernaum“.


Image Credits:

Capernaum from the Sea. Photo by Tango174. {CC-BY-SA 4.0} Source: Wikimedia Commons

Via Maris map adapted by author.

Region of Palestine during the Ministry of Jesus map adapted by author.

“Jesus Boat” photo by author.




2 thoughts on “Why did Jesus move to Capernaum?

  1. Clearly links important information about Jesus to the political and social situations of the times. I especially enjoyed the background information concerning the fishing industry. I have never believed the men Jesus picked to follow him were poor, country bumpkins. They were responsible business people.

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